The soft rasp of flint and and the softer whisper of fire is, some days, the single most satisfying sound in Nazlı’s life. Not every day. She’s chopped the pack-a-day habit in half in recent years, mostly responsive to the gentle but persistent pressure of her mother. She takes a long drag, warms her lungs, exhales and then takes a breath of the chilly air pooling at the base of the mountain.
This is a trailhead she loves, high enough on the hillside to give her a view of the city but not so far into the mountains that it was impossible for her to bike up now that she didn’t have her car.
A breath of smoke spills out to occlude the view, Anchorage lighting up into this early dusk as the sun, veiled by heavy clouds, sinks and sinks down into the sea. There’s a moment, somewhere south of the so-called “golden hour”, when the winter light is just dropping away and the deeper chill of night is getting in real close and cozy, where Nazlı can close her eyes and forget. Everything just slips away except the warm smoke.
She’s not even sure why she’s all the way up here, in this neighborhood. Not likely a family supper, anyway.
Her hazy, insulated thoughts split to make room for a sound that has been growing in the back of her ear for a few moments, now. It’s a low, rushing roar, now that she’s listening, and for a stricken second she’s afraid she’s in the path of an avalanche. But no, she’s in a neighborhood, in the foothills, and anyway there’s no snow on the ground.
But it’s getting closer, and the air rushes past her cheeks, pulling the smoke away from her lips, pushed by some great force.
She whips around to find a roiling white tower of water ripping down the hill like a scythe. It topples the black trees and smashes a house, issuing forth from an impossible wedge of space that has divided the mountain.
Her limbs flail involuntarily in terror, weightless on adrenaline even as her mind calculates the odds of escaping something so massive are a sober flatline.
Everything comes apart, thrusting her back against the sheets of her bed, the close, dark silence of her studio apartment filled with breathing.
Niis grips her shoulders. Nazlı struggles upright, reaching wakefulness a second after. Once she’s loose of the dream and panting hard, the hands go and the bedside lamp clicks to life. Nazlı cringes away from the light.
Her sister’s slender fingers flash inward in the sign for afraid, her face questioning and eyes wide.
“I’m fine, sorry for waking you,” Nazlı croaks. Her throat is dry.
After another moment of searching, Niis clambers off the other side of the queen bed and flips another light on. Groggier, Nazlı climbs to her feet to follow her.
The girl sweeps her cupped palms upward in a round shape, basket—basket case—and then taps W against her mouth.
“Thanks,” Nazlı says, sinking into a chair at the tiny table in the corner of her kitchen. Niis perches across from her with two glasses from the tap. “It was just a bad dream,” she goes on to her sister’s searching look.
Niis traces the sign for cards on the table and then loops her delicate little finger in a sweeping J.
“Oh, God,” Nazlı groans. “Don’t even start with that!”
Niis grins, pulling why? down from her brow.
“Ugh.” She guzzles her water.
Niis signs, tell me, then taps her temple with a knowing look.
Witch is kind of an outmoded term, at once evoking something too specific and too generic to really get at any meaningful communication about what a magician is or does. But hell, if anyone embodies that word, it’s Nazlı’s little sister. The well of her power goes so deep it’s difficult even for the family to look into it. So deep no one has ever seen the bottom.
The numbers on the microwave announce 6:30 am. At least the coffee shop will be open.
“Get your coat on. I’ll tell you on the way.”
Nazlı is not a morning person. It takes a few hours and a steady stream of coffee (and a couple smokes, even though she tries not to when she’s with Niis) before she really gets fully aware of what’s going on, and by that point Julian has turned up. He and her sister are sitting across the table, poring over a spread of 12 cards fanned in a full circle.
He looks up, coffee cup halfway to his mouth.
“You’re not getting my kid sister into witchcraft or Satan worship or whatever it is you do, are you?”
At this, they both glare at her.
“You should take this seriously,” he says, gesturing at the cards.
Nazlı crosses her arms and settles herself no nearer to the spread. He’s right, of course. Julian’s cards came from down below, acquired during a long walkabout that was the darkest time in their personal history together. He’d been gone for months, and Nazlı had thought she’d lost him. This is most of the reason why she resents that deck, more than anything else it represents.
“Okay, Solitaire, what’s in the cards today?”
Julian glances around and then hunches his shoulders a little, as if that will prevent someone from seeing what’s about to happen, and sweeps his right hand over the cards, turning his palm up as he goes.
The cards roll over on their faces, as if pushed by the world’s most precise breath of wind. They all lean closer. As much as Nazlı doesn’t want to care, watching them move by themselves is fascinating, and she is equally invested in nobody else in this sparsely populated establishment really seeing what’s going on.
The deck chooses three, aligning them tidily in front of Julian as though he’d placed them there himself. The other cards scatter around the edge of a loose circle, out of the way of that central energy, that central story that waited to be revealed.
Julian turns the first card, revealing a black and white symbol immediately familiar as The Orphan. Which isn’t strictly fair. This card comes up often for Nazlı, like a pet name. She hadn’t wanted to be the querant, here, but the other two people at the table were trying to dig into her dream.
Isolation. Being outside of ties or a system. Sometimes, lacking a support structure, lonely.
“Okay, that’s the usual thing,” she mutters.
Niis shakes her head, turning her hand over with two fingers extended. Reverse.
Nazlı looks again. The cards are horizontal to her perspective, but Niis is right, the card is facing the other way.
“Arrival. Invasion,” Julian says before she asks. He flips the second card. Here, a hill or bluff is split in half in the simple artwork. “Division,” he says. This card is facing him correctly.
“What’s that supposed to be?” Nazlı says, indicating the white swath through the center of the card.
“A great force,” he says. “I always imagine it as lightning, like The Tower.”
At her side, the W touches Niis’s mouth, her stare heavy.
The third card is another one that’s familiar to her, The Watchtower. It, too, faces Niis instead of Julian. She’s never seen the deck give reversals quite like this before. Upright, The Watchtower evokes a high, secure place of far-seeing and wise decisions.
“Whatever’s coming,” Julian says, tapping the middle card, Division, again. “You’re going to be right in the middle of it.”
“Who says something even is coming?” she says, then scowls. “God, that’s even a pretentiously vague phrase. Something is coming. Yeah, something is coming. Tomorrow, the check, probably a bad flu season. I hope that’s not what I’m meant to be in the middle of.”
Normally, she and Julian would have a minor spat about this and then accept that they were both going to walk away from the reading with their own private considerations and probably not discuss them until much later. It’s what they’d done for years. But Niis is here, now, and she looks thoughtful, maybe a little worried. She’s totally ignoring them, anyway, picking up Division and examining the plain lines more closely.
Nazlı reaches out and closes her hands around her sister’s. “Shake it of, Nissy. It was just a bad dream.”
Niis sets the card down, flashing her a patently teenage roll of the eyes followed by an affectionate smile. She brushes the sign for hungry down her front and then skitters her hands off toward the door with an impatient flutter that, over the years, has mostly signified that Niis is restless. While there’s a fair amount of ASL in her general vernacular, there’s a lot of other gestures and tics that welled out of the slow decline of normal use of her voice.
She starts to get up, then realizes Julian is still frowning.
“Ah, come on. You’re not really going to sit here and sulk. Especially not if we’re going to Gwennies and getting reindeer sausage.”
This breaks him, and shortly they’re back on the road in Julian’s rumbling truck.
The thick overcast of the last week has finally split, revealing a crystal sky fading from black to blue against the approaching, slow sunrise. The temperature is going to plummet, but for now, Venus burns bright on the horizon and frost glitters on the pavement before Julian’s headlights. Winter is beautiful, if you can stay warm.
They roll into Midtown, the familiar sizzle of the ley warding tickling the back of Nazlı’s mind. The feeling from that dream is still clinging to her, like the ghost of smoke in her hair, always there for a second right as she turns her head. Warm, comfortable—Niis and Julian are probably the two safest-feeling people in the world, for her—but also this prickle of something in the background, a sound she can’t quite make out.
One week ago, she and Julian had set out at about this time of the morning, after the long night with Maynard Spears and the phylactery, to get rid of the jar. The only evidence they found of their adventure was some scorch marks on the pavement of the Coastal Trail. The fragments of claustra that Nazlı had dropped there were already scattered, a few broken pieces of jade and a piece of burned wood down the path a yard or so, probably where they’d been kicked by some diligent morning jogger. They waded through the underbrush at about the same place where he and Spears had hauled Luce up from the shoreline. Unlike the previous night, the tide was out, baring miles of dangerous mud flats (as denoted by the occasional sign proclaiming ‘dangerous mud flats’). Perched on the riprap, she and Julian took turns struggling with the decades-sealed lid of the jar until, with some encouragement from Nazlı’s pocket knife, the rust finally gave.
“May no harm come of this,” she said toward the lazy sea. Palms smarting, she gripped the vessel in one hand while using the other to cover her nose and mouth with her sleeve, as it seemed that there wasn’t much left inside than a slurry of ash and liquid and a very powerful stench, she turned downwind and dumped the contents.
They had not spoken of the issue again. Granted, it had only been a week, but Nazlı didn’t get the impression that either of them were keen to. He wasn’t going to tell Bishop, and she didn’t have anyone other than him to tell, really. Despite this commitment to put the whole strange affair out of mind, as Julian waits at the Northwood Drive stoplight, Nazlı realizes her eyes have locked onto the face of a pedestrian buried in a deep parka.
The dark eyes and pleasure-filled smile are familiar. She raises a hand in a small, genial wave.
“What the fuck!” Nazlı snaps, bolting upright in her seat.
The light changes.
“What? What is it?” says Julian, glancing around as best he can while also not wrecking into the cars in front of them.
“That…” Her hand hits the window, but they’re already midway through the intersection, the walker having pulled the thick hood up around her face to keep out the chill and the exhaust. “That was Luce. I think that was Luce!”
Niis’s face pops up between the two front seats, brow furrowed.
“Don’t worry about it,” she and Julian say as a chorus.
“Just a stupid work thing,” Julian goes on, a little more convincingly. She probably won’t be able to put off any mention of this forever, but there is no way Nazlı wants to launch into a full explanation right now. Besides, if Spears has told the story, than she’ll eventually be able to get it out of their father.
Her sister flops back into the jump seat. Nazlı massages her temples. The truck rolls to a stop outside of the restaurant.
“No Hell at breakfast,” Julian says. “And that, my friends, is final.”